Experts talk of that critical period in brain development and parents fret over what they can do to make the most of this crucial time to benefit their children’s cognitive abilities. At the very least, they want to make sure that they don’t fail to do something that they should be doing to support typical development.
The Influence of Nutrition
Nutrition is essential in all stages of life, including the time in the womb, but it has special significance in each one. During the critical years, a good balance of nutrients is necessary to promote brain development.
Child nutrition advisors warn that babies and toddlers should get a sufficient amount of nutrients, particularly iron and iodine, the shortage of which could impair both cognitive and motor development. Sadly, the period is called the critical years for a reason. The effects of nutrient shortage are usually irreversible.
These effects vary depending on the extent and duration of the shortage. The brain itself has changing needs, its use of particular nutrients shifting throughout its development. For instance, shortages in the earlier part of the critical years can lower cell production, while shortages in the latter part have an impact on cell complexity and size. Nutrient gaps influence the brain’s complex chemical processes, potentially leading to faulty communication between the cells.
A balanced diet is understandably necessary in the toddler years. To specifically address brain health, pay attention that their meals include, besides iron and iodine, the following brain-friendly nutrients:
- DHA – This fatty acid has a strong impact on the intensive production of synapses necessary for the learning and development that should happen during these years.
- Choline, Folic Acid, and Zinc – These have links to early brain functioning.
The Problem of Food Insecurity
Hunger is obviously an issue in many third world countries, and the threat to their children’s brain development is absolutely worrying as they experience it during those crucial early years of life. Nonetheless, children in first world countries are not exempt. Instead of hunger, they contend with food insecurity.
Food insecurity, which refers to the inconsistent and undependable supply of healthy food, is also a threat to normal brain development, and many children in more prosperous nations experience it.
Food-insecure families are those who easily avoid hunger by choosing cheaper, more filling foods that do not contain much in the way of nutrients to support good health and, in the case of very young children, normal growth and development. The consequences of this condition are learning and development problems, which later manifest in poor academic performance, poor health, and low emotional quotient.
Your family may be food-insecure if you frequently:
- Can’t afford balanced meals
- Have small servings so there will be enough to go around
- Serve the same low quality meals over and over again
The Importance of Cognitive Stimulation
Besides feeding them nutritious meals, you can also make sure that they get enough mental stimulation. Toddlers may appear to be doing nothing but playing, but in the play, they are actually doing a whole lot of exploring, thinking, solving problems, experimenting, and learning.
Play is a must in your children’s cognitive development. Through it, they develop the ability to understand, communicate, imagine, think, make memories, and figure out probabilities. The following are some play ideas you can provide or do with your children to support their thinking and learning:
- Working on easy puzzles together
- Stacking blocks to make towers
- Providing them play opportunities at bath time with toys they can use for scooping and pouring
- Singing and acting out nursery rhymes
- Reading lots of picture books
- Involving them in storytelling
- Playing with toys that allow sorting according to colors, shapes, sizes, etc.
- Playing with toys with buttons that they have to push, levers they have to pull, strings they have to tug, etc. to make something happen
- Working on messy arts and crafts activities such as coloring, finger painting, chalk drawing, working on play dough, etc.
Let your children lead the play more and more so they can practice making decisions as well as build their confidence. Do not quickly come to the rescue when they’re having a hard time with something during play. Give them time to figure it out. Also, make sure to celebrate even the small triumphs. Those seemingly little wins are huge to them.
Eat and Play for Brain Development
Proper nutrition and cognitive stimulation should be easy and simple enough for the average parent to provide for their children. The important thing is to know what you can do to support cognitive growth in toddlers.